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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12


John Stanmeyer/Saba for TIME
Many migrants work carrying cargo at the riverside docks for a few pennies a load.
CHONGQING: A "Floating Population" Center, 1997
Living Outside the System
By LORI REESE

By birth, Zhou Anchuan is a farmer, but these days his trade is hauling cargo from boats sailing into the southwestern city of Chongqing. He sends most of his wages back to his wife and three children working the minuscule farm in Sichuan province that Zhou calls home. "You just can't make enough money to live off of a few yams," says Zhou, gaunt and work-worn. "It's despicable."

Zhou's plight is one of the greatest problems facing contemporary China: economic liberalization has brought affluence and employment to millions, but not across the map. To get in on the boom--or just to survive--people like Zhou have had to migrate to China's most prosperous cities. That's generally illegal; as a result, those people are known as China's "floating population." They number an astonishing 70 million to 100 million.

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Chongqing has become one of the centers of that floating population--partly by government design. In 1997, the port city at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers was granted special munici-pality status by Beijing to make it an economic magnet. The city got jurisdiction over 82,000 sq km of land that was once part of Sichuan, along with relaxed rules for foreign investment, in the hopes of building up a new industrial center. Millions of dollars were allotted to new infrastructure. The idea was to decant economic development westward from the coastal areas--and to stanch the constant, eastward flow of rural migrants.

It was a good plan with bad timing. The Asian economic crisis and downsizing of state-owned enterprises slammed Chongqing's chemical and steel factories, leading to nearly 300,000 layoffs. But migrants from rural areas continue to arrive in search of livelihoods. The competition for jobs is intense. Zhou would prefer working at the city's refurbished Chaotianmen port. But at the age of 47, he doesn't think he would be chosen over a younger man. "I could make more," he says, pausing to study the ships arriving at the busy docks. "But I can't compete." He's stuck hauling cargo on bamboo poles slung across his back for 12¢ a kilo at an older, half-submerged dock.

There are no official figures for Chongqing's floating population, but it is estimated to number around 2 million. These migrants build the area's impressive highways and tunnels, sell fruits and spices brought from the countryside and haul goods on their backs. (Elsewhere in China, toting heavy loads would be done by bicycle, but Chongqing's streets are too steep.) Native-born residents call the workers bangbang, in reference to the bamboo poles on their backs, and view the migrants with a mixture of acceptance and suspicion. "bangbang are an important part of Chongqing," says a local tour guide. "But watch out for them--they're all rotten eggs."

Wang Luo, a laborer in between hauling jobs, says he feels fortunate that he has work. "I think my job is O.K.," he says. "It's easier than farm work, and I have freedom." He has been in Chongqing for three years; migrants arriving these days are often herded by local police onto a street near the docks as soon as they arrive in the city. They stand on the sidewalks holding signs with work qualifications scrawled in pencil: strong, hard working, very nice. Locals aren't happy about the influx. "Don't believe anything they say about reform," says a native of Chongqing who runs a hot-pot restaurant, pointing to a family settling on the sidewalk to sleep. "Look at those people. Why doesn't the government take care of them?"

In fact, China's leaders don't know what to do with the floating population, or even how to view it. "These people must be regarded as realistic and rational, not unintelligent or rash, as they are often depicted," said a recent article in the People's Daily. According to the piece, the floating population is an "inevitable" product of China's reforms and, rather than prohibit it, the government should learn to "diversify its outlets." For a diverging view, China Through the Third Eye, a book by coal miner-turned-political-analyst Wang Shan, contends that rural migrants are a plague that will eventually destroy the People's Republic. The book was banned after its 1994 publication, but President Jiang Zemin later endorsed the book and passed it to his colleagues.

At Chaotianmen dock, rural workers pile onto a small steel ship, visibly exhausted: they are going home briefly to help with the harvest. Li Anjing, a 35-year-old fruit merchant, explains that business hasn't been good recently. "Too many people have been laid off," she says. "But I guess I'm pretty lucky. I can still afford to go home to see my parents now and then." Sadly, it may be a long time before she and others like her are reunited with their families for good.

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